Myth: All CS Teams Are Alike

With Guest Ashvin Vaidyanathan, Vice President

With Ashvin Vaidyanathan, Vice President, Customer Success and Insights at LinkedIn

In Episode 10 of our series, we have with us Ashvin Vaidyanathan, an industry leader with over 15+ years of leadership roles in customer success, marketing,  and business development across multiple industries.

As the VP of Customer Success and Insights at LinkedIn, Ashvin is responsible for delivering value to LinkedIn's customers and leads a team of ~1400 teammates globally covering Customer Success, Services, Scaled Programs, and Insights.  In the past, he led Gainsight’s post-sales functions, including a global team of more than 150 team members across customer success management, professional services, and support.  He’s also a published author and expert having co-authored the best-selling CS Professional's Handbook

Ashvin shares his career journey, ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of CS needs’, the way ahead for Customer Success, and busts a CS myth or two along the way.

1. Tell us that one CS myth you want to bust.

All Customer Success teams are alike. They are not – because each team is at a different stage of maturity,  as a team and as a company. The place where I see customer success run into trouble is the company not knowing what to do with customer success and customer success leaders, not having a strong point of view on why they exist. 

It has been very helpful for me to think about it like Maslow’s hierarchy of values that a customer success organization can provide customers. 

The most basic level is customer satisfaction. We don't know why our customers bought our product, why they are spending with us. We don't know their objectives. But when they reach out to us with questions, we respond promptly and solve that problem. It's almost like glorified support reps if you will. 

The next level is product adoption. We still don't know why you bought our products. But we know that if you use the product, the chances are that you will perceive more value and hopefully retain and grow with the vendor. This is where a lot of customer success teams end up getting stuck.

The third level is where we not only care about product adoption but we focus on the cause of delivering customer value and customer objectives. We deeply understand why you bought, what you're trying to accomplish, how you're trying to make money or save money or save time using the products that you're paying for. And the features or capabilities in the product help you achieve that. That is the holy grail I think for customer success teams to unlock and become the team that is responsible or accountable within the company for delivering on customer value. 

Once you get to that point, where CSMs can consistently identify, deliver, and articulate value to our customers, then the renewal should be a non-event theoretically. Then the CS team starts owning renewals, and maybe organic expansion, etc. too

This framework is helpful to think about the reason the CS team exists because without that you become a catch-all for all problems that no one else wants to solve. Some of it might also depend on what stage of a company you are in. For example, if you don't have product market fit, the biggest thing the CS team can do is be responsive to customer needs. 

2. So how did you find your way to Customer Success?

It was a bit of a stumble, to be honest. Back then, I had no clue about Customer Success as a profession. My background was in sales and marketing, and later, I ventured into consulting at McKinsey. Along the way, I figured out that I enjoyed problem-solving and engaging with customers.

Then, I crossed paths with Nick from Gainsight. One thing led to another and I joined them. It turned out to be a perfect fit, scratching both my customer interaction and problem-solving itches. 

I loved the idea of working in Customer Success at a company creating Customer Success software - Customer Zero, if you will. The opportunity of creating a category was too good to pass up.

3. What advice would you give someone just starting their CS journey as an individual contributor?

If you're starting as a CSM, you need to focus on three areas.

The Capability Quotient: You should be an excellent use case expert for what your product does, what it doesn't do, what differentiates it from competitors, and how it works in the customers’ context. You don't have to be a technical expert, but you should be a really good use case expert

The second is your Intelligence Quotient. The life of a CSM is never a straight line. This is about how well you can solve problems, how creative you are, how you can bring together different teams – Product, Support, Sales, etc. – to solve customer issues, how you multithread at the customer end, etc.

The EQ bucket is about your relationship-building skills.  You don't do business with customers, you do business with people. It’s about how you bring that human element to your relationships.

The best CSMs spend a lot of time understanding their product differentiation, the customer’s context, and connecting the dots on how their product maps to the customer’s objectives. That is where I think the best CSMs differentiate themselves. 

4. What advice would you give a CS leader leading a team of high-achieving CSMs?

Be very clear with yourself, your team, and your C-suite on the role of Customer Success in your company,

Spend time aligning Sales, Marketing, Support,  and any other post-sales function on customer objectives and what customer value means in their terms.

This is harder than it sounds. Often, companies don't know how to articulate what value means in customers' terms. But once you do it, the entire company can rally behind delivering something consistently.

Next, focus on aligning with the organization on the value of the CS team and how you measure/report that.  Sales teams are good at being numbers/target/metrics-oriented. CS teams, on the other hand, and CS leaders to some extent tend to be more squishy about how they measure success. Make sure that you define and articulate how you measure the value of the CS function and how you report it

5. Help us understand why a company like LinkedIn invests in Customer Success.  How would the CEO and the rest of the leadership team define success for CS?

At LinkedIn, we believe that if we deliver massive value to our customers, our customers will naturally grow with us and share some of that incremental value back with us.

We need our sales team to be focused on ensuring growth in the business in year, but we also need to look at long term value creation for our customers. We need to make sure that we deliver amazing value and experiences for our customers. And that is why Customer Success exists at LinkedIn – to unlock long-term value for our customers. 

Earlier, the success of CS was measured by product adoption. Over time, the focus has shifted to the percentage of customers achieving objectives or finding value on their own terms. CS teams are not just responsible for influencing outcomes; they collaborate with other teams i.e. support, product teams, etc. to enhance the perceived value for customers.

6. Looking ahead at 2024, what is top of mind for you for Customer Success? What does the ‘new era of CS’ as it is being called, mean to you? 

While Customer Success as a profession is facing some challenges, as a philosophy and methodology, it continues to thrive because that's how companies make more money and customers get more value

AI has been incredible for things that would have otherwise taken much longer to do. And it's coming from a place of both efficiency and effectiveness. We are not growing the team significantly; we are doing more with the same or more with fewer resources across different teams. Having the power of scale is huge and AI is helping us in that direction. All our CSMs can do our jobs significantly better and have more meaningful customer conversations because of the power of AI. 

I'll call out three things where we are investing a lot of energy within my teams - real use cases that are bending the curve for us in both efficiency and effectiveness. 

The first one is the personalization of e-mail outreach, or in-product prompts. Earlier, we would need someone in data science to go through massive amounts of data and then create some personalized hooks for our customers.  Today, we can get much more personalization in far shorter amounts of time because we have the power of large language models. The early success of this has been immense with up to 30% open rates on our emails because they are so highly personalized to that particular user. 

The second one is around conversational intelligence - we record all calls when CSMs connect with our customers. Earlier, we could track if we were talking to customers frequently enough based on our desired cadence. But now we can actually start measuring the quality of those interactions to ask: Are we talking about our most recent features? What was the sentiment on the call? Are we asking questions the right way?

With this,  we can be much more insightful. We’ve been able to fast-track upskilling the team, and proactively identify risks, etc.

The third use case is around case studies. CSMs have an amazing amount of tribal knowledge of what customer actions led to the best outcomes. We have a practice of documenting these in Word or Google documents. But with thousands of documents, it’s impossible for a CSM to know which document to look at while preparing for a customer meeting. 

With GenAI, we can might be able to parse through specifics like which customers, which industry, with how many employees, etc. It points to the right parts of the case studies. That is game-changing for how our teams can be far more knowledgeable, and add more value to our customers. 

Those are just three examples. But there's so much more that we are thinking about when we think about scale for efficiency and effectiveness.

7. With the emphasis on automation, is there an opportunity to put humans back at the center of customer value delivery?

I'll start with the premise that we sell to, and service, real humans. The business of connecting human to human will never go away – at least not in the B2B world. 

However, not all of your customers get human interaction. You can't economically justify that having a human interact frequently with the long tail of smaller customers with lower spend 

I think the power of scale in the foreseeable future is allowing the goodness of human interactions to extend to more customers than happens today.The biggest unlock will be IF 40%. 50% of customers can now benefit from working with a human.

Then you get into the next model of how do we continue to take busy work off of CSMs? AI makes the human interactions to be only the highest value interactions rather than following support tickets or taking call notes, etc. That is what gets me excited… that my human coverage becomes even higher. which then customers appreciate to a large extent.


Thank you, Ashvin, for these nuggets of wisdom.

Stay tuned for more discussions with CS experts as we explore the evolving landscape of Customer Success.

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